Archive for the ‘Tyler Clippard’ Category

Marquis Is Back, Nats Fall

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Nats starter Jason Marquis appears to be all the way back from surgery to remove “foreign bodies” in his elbow, pitching masterfully in 7.1 innings against the Chicago Cubs at Nationals Park on Wednesday. But the New Yorker’s outing did not result in a win, as the Cubs victimized the Nationals’ bullpen and went on to register a win, 4-0. The victory sealed a Cubs’ sweep of the three game series. Marquis, who the Nationals signed as a free agent in the off season, received a standing ovation as he walked from the mound in the 8th. “I was attacking the strike zone,” Marquis said. “The more I’ve been throwing, I’m creating better habits and allowing myself to make those pitches in the bottom of the zone. I let my defense do the work, which I have done the last few years. It’s definitely exciting to be back.”

After successive games in which the bullpen shut down the Cubs, Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett pitched poorly — with Clippard yielding a double to Cubs rookie shortstop Starlin Castro, scoring Tyler Colvin from first base. That was all the Cubs would need. After the loss, Nationals skipper Jim Riggleman seemed to respond to rising complaints about the Nationals losing streak — and rising criticism of his decision making: “I’m certainly disappointed in our record,”  Riggleman said after the game. “I know our guys are playing hard, they are giving effort. The intensity is there, the hurt is there. We are suffering. We’re getting beat. I don’t like getting beat. I’m sick of it. I know our players are. It’s a game of character. Our character is being tested. We have to pass that character test.”

The Wisdom Of Section 1-2-9: You know that fans are losing heart when they begin to give away their tickets. This is what’s happening in Section 129, as an entirely new cohort of “fans” showed up for the Zambrano game, including a New Yorker who was (I swear) the spitting image of actor Chazz Palminteri — the tough talking “Agent Kujan” of “The Usual Suspects.” He and his friend (a separated at birth twin for New York cop — and Kujan sidekick — Sgt. Jeff Rabin) elbowed their way into my row in the top of the 3rd inning, pushing aside the regulars. “Hey buddy, you’re in our seats,” the Kujan look-alike said. I shook my head. Kujan held out his tickets: “Oh yeah?” The tickets said he and his friend were actually in Section 130. “You’re over there.” He eyed me for a minute: “We’ll sit here.” Okay, fine. But I had an overwhelming urge to ask him whether he’d ever heard of Keyser Soze. I tried to remember the line, but couldn’t — and then, suddenly, it was there: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” I thought about it for a minute, but let it go.

“Agent Kujan” ignored me, but then started chatting in the 5th — I was keeping score and he looked at my book. “Hey buddy, you’re really into this.” I nodded: “It’s my diversion.” He gave me a crooked smile. “What the hell’s that mean?” I thought for a moment. “A hobby.” This seemed to satisfy him, but in the 6th he began peppering me with questions. “So they got nothin’, I mean the Nats — they got nothin‘.” Well, I said, they’ve got Zimmerman. He nodded: “The third baseman, yeah — sure. But that’s it.” And Dunn, I added. “Yeah,” he said, “but outside of that, they got nothin’.” I shrugged: well, and they’ve got “the kid at shortstop” and “the new pitcher — Strasburg — and . . .” He didn’t like it: “Listen buddy, I’m tellin’ ya, they got nothin’. Believe me.” Half an inning later he took it up again. “If they’re so good, why ain’t they in first place?” Good point, actually. “They don’t have any pitching,” I said, nodding. His buddy leaned across Kujan, his eyebrows up. He wagged his finger. “First thing you said — first thing you said.”

Kujan tried again in the 7th. “Hey buddy,” he said. “Who’s that shortstop up in New York? You know — the good one.” You mean Derek Jeter, I responded. “No, no. The other one.” Verbil Kint? Dean Keaton? Kobayashi? “Jose Reyes,” I said. “Yeah, that the one. Now there’s a heck of a ballplayer.” His buddy nodded vigorously. “Too true. When you’re right, you’re right.” Ah, Mets fans. That explained everything. But Kujan was just getting started. “You know, the Cubs are going to have a new manager next year. Could be anyone.” I nodded, and mentioned that I heard that Joe Girardi or Joe Torre might be interested in the job. He was insulted, shaking his head — Palminteri like. “You kiddin’ me? No way. Let’s me tell you something buddy,” he said. “Joe Torre ain’t gonna take it. No way. He loves it out there in L.A. And who wouldn’t, that what I say. And Girardi? You think a guy’s gonna move outa New York to go to Chicago?” I guess you’re right, I said. His buddy chimed in: “When you’re right, you’re right. That’s what I always say. When you’re right, you’re right.” By the 8th inning, with the Cubs ahead by five, Kujan had had enough, elbowing past me. “Good talkin to ya,” he said.

And like that — poof. He was gone.”

Nats Win Snakes’ Series

Monday, August 16th, 2010

The Nationals defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks 5-3 at Nationals Park on Sunday, taking two games of a three game series. The game marked the second return of Stephen Strasburg following his stint on the D.L., and “the kid” pitched well, despite giving up a home run to Adam LaRoche and making an errant throw to first baseman Adam Dunn. “I was talking to Stephen a little bit ago. He said that it is the best he felt,” Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman said, following the victory. “The ball was coming out of his hand good. Stras did a great job and gave us a chance to win.” The Nats trailed the D-Backs 3-1 into the bottom of the fourth, when slumping Josh Willingham shook loose from his doldrums and launched a pitch off of D-Backs starter Barry Enright to tie the game. The Nats won the game on a single by Ian Desmond, with Ryan Zimmerman providing an insurance homer. Typically, the Nats’ bullpen closed out their opponents, with Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Drew Storen shutting down the Arizona order.

The Ghost of Kerry Wood: Nats’ fans at the ballpark on Sunday probably didn’t get a chance to see Strasburg’s frustration with being lifted after pitching just five innings, but “the kid” was clearly angered by the move. Strasburg, mouth set and eyes flashing, sat the bench after the end of the fifth inning fuming. At least that’s what the fans at home saw, with Strasburg’s irritation coming in waves through the camera lens. Nats pitching czar Steve McCatty intervened with an explanation, speaking with animation as Strasburg shook his head on the bench. This isn’t the first time that Strasburg has been angered, though he never mentions it in any post game interview. But if Strasburg is angry it’s only because he has a right to be. And he’s not the only one. Jim Riggleman’s reputation as a manager with an early hook is well-earned. He’s got a shepard’s staff as big as Little Bo Peep (oops … well, let’s go with this version) — the result of his time as the manager of the North Side Drama Queens, when he oversaw the 1998 rookie campaign of strikeout king Kerry Wood.

The ghost of Kerry Wood seems ever-present with Riggleman, who coached the Slugs when they were going somewhere and the young Wood was the talk of baseball. The problem was that Wood had a raw elbow, with his ligaments tearing and bleeding everytime he threw. And in 1998, after a stint in the minors when he rarely threw even close to 100 pitches, Wood was carrying the load for a contending team — and throwing 115 to 120 pitches per game. Eventually (after sitting out the ’99 season with surgery, and pitching just so-so over the next three years), the elbow blew itself out for good and Wood, with successive stints in rehab, became a reliever. It was a loss, for Kerry Wood might have been, perhaps could have been (and maybe even should have been), one of the best starters in the game.

Riggleman, Wood’s skipper, blames himself. “If I had it to do over, I would do it differently,” he told the Washington Post back in March. “And we probably wouldn’t have gotten to the playoffs. If I had known what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have pitched him that much, period. But I would have caught a lot of grief. I caught a lot of grief as it was. We lost a lot of games where [Wood] came out after five or six innings. I was getting comments like, ‘C’mon, Riggs, leave him in.'” Wood disagrees: the ripping in his elbow had been happening for several years (he says) and it was bound to explode at some point. It was inevitable. “My elbow was going to go,” Wood told the Post. “If it didn’t go with [Riggleman] it would’ve gone with someone else. It was the way I was throwing, the stuff I had, the torque I was generating. It was a matter of time.”

Which is only to say that there’s a good reason why Jim Riggleman is as careful with Stephen Strasburg as he is. But Riggleman’s decision today — to sit Strasburg after the 5th — struck many fans as overly careful. After all, pitchers strain their arm, or throw out their shoulder, all the time. And not simply because they throw a lot of baseballs, or have a predisposition, or because they’re not on a pitch count. Pitchers blow out their arms because they’re pitchers. Wood understood this: in the end it didn’t matter how many pitches he threw, his “elbow was going to go” anyway. “It was a matter of time.” This is not an argument for having Rizzo, Riggleman & Company allow Strasburg to throw 110 to 120 pitches each and every game. It’s an argument for perspective and practicality — Stephen Strasburg is a pitcher, not a piece of fine China.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s a recognition that Washington Nationals fans aren’t going to show up at the park on Half Street to watch “the kid” throw 70 pitches over five innings — especially when it’s clear that (as happened on Sunday), he’s just starting to hit his stride.

Assessing The Second Half

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Just one year ago, in 2009, the Washington Nationals opened the second half of their season not only in last place in the NL East, but as the worst team in baseball. The problems then were obvious: the bullpen had imploded, regular outfielder Austin Kearns was slumping, there was no starting pitching and the team seemed uninvolved and detached. The challenge then was different than it is now: to change what was happening on the field, the Nats needed to change what was happening in the front office — a view reflected in ownership’s mid season open letter to fans that contained an embarrassing, but necessary apology. No such apology is needed now. While the Nats are yet again in last place in their division, the rebuilt bullpen is solid, Austin Kearns (DHL’d to Cleveland) has been replaced in the outfield by slugger Josh Willingham, the team’s starting rotation is filled with promise and the clubhouse is tight and optimistic. But perhaps the biggest revolution has been where the fans can’t see it: the front office is retooled — with an engaged general manager and a core of scouts and development experts who are competing with the best in baseball.

The challenges facing the 2009 Nats were obvious, the needed changes reflected in the standings. That’s less true now, particularly considering that the franchise controls one of the game’s premier young pitchers (Stephen Strasburg), has one of the most formidable 3-4-5 line-up combinations in the National League (Zimmerman, Dunn, Willingham), is steadied by a future hall of famer behind the plate (“Pudge” Rodriguez), and has — waiting in the wings — a crowd of injured starting pitchers that could energize a second half surge (Jason Marquis, Jordan Zimmermann, Scott Olsen and Chien-Ming Wang). Which is not to say that there aren’t problems. There are. The Nats defense is weak, the team’s set-up men are struggling, their center fielder is having problems on the base paths (and at the plate) and (pending the uncertain return of a quartet of tweeky arms) their starting pitching is shaky.

In 2009, these same problems (and their hypothetical resolution) spurred overly optimistic talk; that the Nationals were actually “only a player or two” from being good. That wasn’t true in 2009 — not even close, but it’s true now. The question for Mike Rizzo is whether he busts up a good thing to continue building, or whether he tweaks the team at the edges, hoping that the return of the Marquis-Zimmermann-Olsen-Wang quartet will provide the necessary spur to vault the team out of last place. It’s not an easy decision: busting up the team means trading popular and productive players (Dunn or Willingham, or both), while tweaking it at the edges probably (probably) means accepting that the Nats future is not now, but sometime next year. If there’s good news here, it’s this: Nats fans won’t have to wait until August or September to determine the team’s fate — that tale will be told before the July 31 trading deadline.

The Wisdom Of Secton 1-2-9: The CFG contingent arrived at the first game of the McCovey series with a new set of fans seated firmly in the row behind the regulars. That the two (I swear) looked like the spitting image of Omar Little and Stringer Bell was tempting: “hey, you two were great in The Wire.” The moment, thankfully, passed. The two turned out to be charter members of the Nyjer Morgan fan club, pumping their fists at every Nyjer moment: “My man,” one said, when Nyjer came to the plate. A row mate was not impressed, mimicking Casey At The Bat — “strike two said the umpire” and then the smile “not my style said Nyjer.” There were titters. When Morgan flipped his bat in disgust at a strike out served up by Matt Cain, the potential for a debate seemed electric, but one of the Morgan partisans smiled:  “You’ll see,” he said, to no one in particular. And he was right: Morgan was 2-5 and knocked in a run. “Hey man,” one of the Morgan fans said, but so we could hear it, “some of these fans don’t remember what Nyjer did for us last year.” His row mate nodded in agreement. “Yeah man, I know. Short memories.” This was greeted by silence. And chagrin. They were relentless, boring in for the kill. One of them tapped me on the shoulder: “That was a rope,” he said, after Morgan put a streaking line drive down the right field line. Okay, okay, okay . . .

“The problem with Clippard is that his curve just isn’t working,” one of the section’s middle relief experts opined in the second game of the San Francisco series. He didn’t need to keep making the point, Clippard was making it for him — “see, look at that.” Clippard looked terrible and shook his head as he came off the field. “He feels it,” and then there was just a tick before this, from a fan down the row: “Yeah, well, he should.” But the section remained optimistic (“he’ll get it back”), even as the Nats squandered a seemingly insurmountable lead (“yeah, but not this inning”). There were some few Giants fans in the seats, complete with newly minted, black and orange, Buster Posey jerseys. One Frisco fan (“San Francisco natives never use that term,” I was told) was tweeting with a family member, even as the Nats compiled a five runs lead. The message was pointed: “My boy Posey will regulate!” He did: 4-5 with 3 RBIs.

Zim Walks Off (Again)

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

Ryan Zimmerman has been on a tear: he is 6-9 over his last two games and, on Tuesday night, he hit a walk off homer against the San Diego Padres to seal a hard-fought 6-5 victory at Nationals Park. The Zimmerman surge has come just at the right time; not only did it provide a nail-biting win over the NL West leading Friars, it may well have boosted Zimmerman’s All Star chances in a last-minute fan vote. Zimmerman is trailing Cincinnati slugger Joey Votto in a close contest for the final All Star spot. Zimmerman’s sudden rediscovery of his swing is good news for Nats fans, who were beginning to worry that Zim’s month-long slump would sink the Nats in the key home match-ups that face the team in the run-up to the All Star break. “I’ve been struggling the last three weeks, four weeks. It’s frustrating,” Zimmerman said after the game. “Nobody wants to do that. I’ve been working with Rick a little bit, and it’s finally starting to get where I want to be, so it’s good.”

Zimmerman’s bottom-of-the-ninth heroics were the talk of the ball club following the needed win over the Padres, as was the stellar outing the team received from Livan Hernandez, who threw seven innings of masterful ball in searching for his seventh win. But the 8th inning proved tough for the Nats, whose relievers have struggled of late: Tyler Clippard came on in relief and gave up two hits, as the Padres knotted the score at five. After wowing opposing hitters, and Nats fans, through the first three months of the season, Clippard has been shaky:  “I’ve been throwing the right pitches — maybe not executing them all the time,” Clippard said. “But tonight, I just felt like I made poor decisions. I felt like I should have thrown some things differently. It wasn’t the case, and I didn’t get the job done.” The Nats improved to 37-47 on the year, and face the Padres again tonight.

The Wisdom of Section 1-2-9: “There something wrong with Stammen,” one of the section’s more well-informed fans said on Sunday. There was silence then, for two innings. “When you get a guy who’s good one outing and bad the next, it’s usually mental.” And then more silence until this — “how do you tweek a guy’s head?” Another fan, a known Stammen partisan, was supportive. “He’s a Maddux in the making,” he said. “You’ll see.” There were furtive looks and not a few eye rolls. “Yeah, but which one? Greg or Mike?” When Stammen walked off the field there was a smattering of applause and the man in the row in front shrugged his shoulders. “Mike. Mike Maddux.”

A successful Nyjer Morgan bunt brought this comment: “He’s been trying to take them down the third base line for three months, now suddenly he’s figured it out — he’s racing the ball to first. About time.” The comment brought nods and then, support, for the struggling center fielder: “Did you see that catch the other day?” Not all has been forgiven when it comes to Morgan, but nearly so. “Maybe he can play short” — which brought guffaws. The remembered circus catch in center has raised Morgan’s value — at least among section commenters. “Riggleman is defending him, on the basis of last year,” another fan said. A fan two seats down was unimpressed. “Yeah, I saw that.” In the eighth inning, as the Nats struggled to come back against the Mets, the talk turned to trades. “We’d have to give up some prime prospects for Dan Haren, but it’d be worth it.” And the response: “Think of it — Strasburg, Haren, Marquis, Hernandez, Zimmermann. That’s a pretty good starting five.” What about Olsen? a fan asked. The answer came, too quickly: “What about him?”

Nats Boot It In Baltimore

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

You can’t make four errors and expect to win a ball game, no matter how much you hit — and no matter how many spectacular plays you make that are  nominated for “Web Gems” on “Baseball Tonight.” The Nats made four errors against Baltimore on Friday night, dropping an extra innings heartbreaker (and the first game of a three game set), to the Orioles, 7-6. This should have been Nyjer Morgan’s game: the Nats’ pesky lead-off hitter went 4-5, scored three runs, drove in one, stole a base and made a spectacular catch on what looked like a sure home run by Oriole Corey Patterson. Morgan climbed the centerfield wall at Camden Yards to snag the deep fly and rob the fleet-footed Patterson, who tipped his cap to Morgan in acknowledgment of his good glove work. Ironically, in an error-filled game, Morgan’s circus catch was one of the best defensive play of the year for the Nats. But Morgan’s good glove and hot bat after a month-long slump could not save his team, who played an embarrassing error-filled game.

After the game, Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman seemed befuddled, and angered, by his team’s loss. “You saw it. I’m not going to say anything specific, but the way we are playing in general — defensively — it isn’t good enough,” Riggleman said to reporters. “We do a lot of talking about it. We are out there working on it. But for some reason … I really can’t explain it. I know we put the work in. I feel bad for the players. It’s an issue for them. They see the number of errors. They see the games get away from us, because we are not making plays. We have to find a way to change that.” To compound the errors, righty reliever Tyler Clippard pitched poorly, in what has to account for his worst relief outing of the year. Clippard, who has been so consistent that Nats fans take his excellent relief appearance for granted, gave up four hits and four runs (three of them earned) in just 1.1 inning of work. While the Nats left Camden Yards disappointed, the O’s were ecstatic — registering a rare come-from-behind win on what should have been a double play ball that would have sent the game into extra innings. The O’s scored when Cristian Guzman’s flip to first eluded first sacker Adam Dunn. Guzman and shortstop Ian Desmond each had two errors in the game.

Unfortunately, while the Orioles will focus on the win and the Nats will focus on the errors, Nyjer Morgan’s play vindicated Riggleman who, prior to the game, said that he was undisturbed by the center fielder’s lack of production. Riggleman’s comments were a vote of confidence for Morgan, who has been the subject of fan criticism, and speculation that he might be benched in favor of Roger Bernadina. Riggleman has been trying to find a way to give Mike Morse more at bats — and benching Morgan and moving Bernadina into his spot would solve that problem. Morse would then play right field. But Riggleman said he’s sticking with Morgan. “I have a lot of patience with Nyjer,” Riggleman said. “One thing we kind of hang our hats on is last year when we got Nyjer at this time of the year, he had been doing OK in Pittsburgh, not having a great start, just treading water. Then he took off.” Riggleman seemed more than satisfied that his vote of confidence in Morgan worked out: after the loss to the Orioles the Nats skipper pointedly referred to the Morgan catch. “It may have been the greatest play of the year,” he said.

Nats End Slump, 2-1

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Monday’s 2-1 win at Nationals Park may be taken as “Exhibit #1” that pitching — good pitching — wins ballgames. While the Nationals squeezed out only three hits against the more-than-mediocre Bruce Chen (et. al.), Livan Hernandez mastered the Royals line-up through seven complete innings, scattering eight hits and striking out five. The Nats relied on the long ball, with super-sometime-starter Mike Morse and second sacker Cristian Guzman providing the fireworks. The victory was closed out by Washington’s “Clipp & Save” crew of Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps — who notched his 21st save. Nats starter Livan Hernandez returned to his winning ways, and his by now traditional slow-slower-slowest methods — a turnaround from his last outing against the Kalines in which he was scorched. “I left the ball up a little bit, but the slider was working very well,” Hernandez said after his victory. “The cutter was working perfectly. I had a bad game in Detroit, so today I knew I had to come through and stop the losing streak.”

The Wisdom Of Section 1-2-9: There’s a familiar touch that comes from sitting in the same section, game after game after game. It’s not like you’d want to live with these people, but after ten games (or more), you learn to value the comments of your section. Or not, as the case may be. There are times when you want to turn around, facing the guys in the row behind you and say: “Hey listen, I understand that your sale of software is important, but Gavin Floyd is pitching a great game here. Not to mention Strasburg.” You don’t do it, because people come to the ballpark for all kinds of reasons, some of them apparently having nothing to do with baseball. There’s no legislating intelligence, as they say. Still, there are those valuable moments that only a new set of eyes can see. A fan looked over my shoulder, two weeks ago, as I was scoring. “Remember, there’s no RBI on a run scored on a double play,” he said. I looked down at my score book, eraser poised. Mmmmm. Right.

“Nyjer’s act is wearing thin,” a 1-2-9 partisan said this week. A man two rows up leaned forward: “Tony Plush!” — which brought groans from down the row. The guy next to me weighed in. “He has trouble with a fastball, it’s all this dink and dunk stuff, bringing the bat down to bunt and pulling it back. That’s a clear message — he can’t catch up to the fastball. And he doesn’t read pitchers well.” There was silence through the next inning, until Morgan came to bat. He faked a bunt to third, running down the first base line. Strike two. One pitch later he was on the bench. Heads turned, checking his BA on the scoreboard. .251. “So what do we do?” Silence, and then this: “Center field is Bernadina’s natural position and Morse needs playing time.” A dissent was issued, one row back, where talk of software had been ceded to the game on the field. “We wouldn’t be saying this last year.” Two batters later, the response came, from a bright new Nats Cap three seats away. “We were a different team last year. Last year Nyjer Morgan looked like our salvation. This year he looks like a .251 hitter.” True.